Fiction Reviews

Altered Carbon

(2001 / 2007) Richard Morgan, Gollancz, 7.99, pbk, 470 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8112-3

(2001 / 2018) Richard Morgan, Gollancz, 8.99 / Can$15.99, pbk, 471 pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22367-7


Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon is one of the novels in the first grouping of Gollancz's new (2007) 'Future Classics' series, though the novel first came out only in 2001. This edition has a two-colour cover (as have the others in the 'Future Classics' series) with no text on the front, though there is clear labelling on the spine. The story itself is a well-crafted futuristic detective thriller.

Set a few centuries hence, Altered Carbon's protagonist is one Takeshi Kovacs who is an 'Envoy', part of an interstellar military cum diplomatic force that tackles unsavoury chores. Envoys bodies have added GM (genetically Modified) features including certain biochemical (both natural and artificial) control and these combined with combat training make them tough, fearsome opponents.

Kovacs has done something illegal and so gets put on the stack: his body is in suspended animation while his mind is electronically stored. He wakes up on humanity's ancestral home (Earth) in another body (cf., Robert Sheckley's Mindswap (1966)) his mind having been transferred there by needlecast (instantaneous communicating ansible). It turns out that a very rich person, who is centuries old (something possible through cloning and mind transference), wants to hire Kovacs to find out who his murderer is. (Being murdered and living is also possible if you have a back-up mind on stack.) On the face of it it looks like the rich person committed suicide especially as the act took place at his home behind tight security. The problem is that the rich person does not know what took place in the last 48 hours of his life (the time interval to his last stack back-up). The police view the killing as suicide but the rich man does not accept this. He therefore uses his wealth to get someone with Envoy skills, and who was not known on Earth, to investigate for him. And so it is that Kovacs is given a deal he cannot refuse. Find the murderer and get paid or fail to solve the case and serve out his time on stack.

This then, in a nutshell, is the story's set-up. Richard Morgan has crafted a solid, hard SF, noireish, cyberpunk thriller. At the novel's beginning the reader hits the ground running and the pace hardly lets up through to the book's conclusion. If you like detective thrillers then this certainly delivers with possibilities galore and a good dollop of red herrings: although, as usual with this sub-genre, most of the pertinent clues are given in the opening chapters. However even if you are not fond of detective thrillers, the SF is sound with tropes and their implications abound. AIs, cloning, problems of longevity, information technology with biology interfaces, and virtual reality all come together in a satisfying mix.

Richard Morgan hails from Scotland and this was his first novel though he also writes graphic novels, and it is clear from Altered Carbon that he is very familiar with SF. Indeed Altered Carbon is such a strong novel it is not surprising that it has already had some accolade (in addition to being chosen to be part of the first tranche of Gollancz's 'Future Classics') and it won the Philip K. Dick Award. Since then his books have included Broken Angels, Market Forces, Woken Furies and Black Man. One of Concat's other co-editors, Tony, rates these highly. Tony prefers slightly more gritty stories than I but we both enjoy good hard SF and I am happy to go along with Tony's recommendation for you good folk to -- should from our reviews you like the sound of this book -- go out and seek Altered Carbon and to check out Morgan's other works.

The 2018 edition was released to accompany the launch of the Netflix television mini-series.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Tony's review of Altered Carbon.

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